Since 1994, Turner Classic Movies has been airing classic cinema, uncut and commercial-free, for 24 hours a day. From carefully curated programming to preserving and adapting to the ever-changing landscape of cinema, TCM has been a staple in many creatives’ lives, introducing filmmakers and storytellers to stories that have shaped Hollywood and the film industry, hosting film festivals, and several annual fan events.
Unfortunately, the preservation of film and cinema history seemed to not be on Warner Bro. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s mind as he axed the entire executive leadership team of TCM, most of who had been with the company for 20 years, as well as other members of the staff.
The news was met with backlash from viewers and cinephiles, including high-profile filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese. Those three American auteurs met with Zaslav to try to stop the bleeding before TCM was pronounced dead.
So what came from that meeting? Is TCM still around? Let’s get into it.
What Happened to TCM?
Since the merger between Discovery and Warner Bros. in April 2022, Zaslav has been hard at work trying to reduce WBD’s $50 billion debt. From axing projects in production to shelving already completed and distributed films and TV shows, Zaslav was finding creative ways to reduce the company’s debt. Unfortunately, another solution for Zaslav was laying off staff across the multiple branches under the WBD umbrella.
Sources told Entertainment Weekly that the Film Foundation, founded in 1990 by Scorsese to protect and preserve cinematic history, arranged a meeting with Zaslav after news broke of the layoffs at TCM. However, WBD decided it would look best to say that Zaslav called the meeting.
Despite who called the meeting, the news that came from the meeting changed the fate of TCM.
According to EW, creative oversight of TCM moved from the WDB TV networks side to Warner Bros. Pictures bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy on June 23. The three filmmakers agreed to enter a partnership to help curate the channel.
A week later, senior VP of programming and content strategy Charles Tabesh was saved from being laid off.
“Following the creation of this arrangement, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg agreed to work with Mike De Luca, Pam Abdy, and Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group to provide guidance on curation and program scheduling for TCM as well as input on the production of the interstitial programming on the network,” Warner Bros. Discovery tells EW. “TCM has designated Charles Tabesh to provide dedicated Programming leadership for TCM and will consult with the Directors Group on decisions in selecting Programming leadership for TCM. Charles Tabesh will collaborate on an ongoing basis with the Directors Group and facilitate their provision of the Creative Collaboration Services.”
“We were losing the very essence of what TCM is and how we programmed over the past nearly 30 years,” an insider tells EW. “If Charlie were to remain gone, we don’t have any sense of what the company was going to do with the TCM programming.”
On Aug. 1, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz tweeted that TCM Enterprises vice president Genevieve McGillicuddy was “imminent” and is already hard at work on the 2024 TCM Classic Film Festival.
There’s good news. Then there’s great news: The return of @TCM Film Festival Director Genevieve McGillicuddy (somehow her real name) is imminent. She’s already at work on the 2024 festival. Thanks to everyone – from management to Genevieve to all of you – for making this happen.
— Ben Mankiewicz (@BenMank77) August 2, 2023
Why Did WBD Try to Remove TCM?
TCM has always been an unusual ad-free network. Despite not making profits from advertisements like most networks, TCM has always been profitable thanks to cable providers and its rabid fan base. (I am admittedly a big supporter of TCM’s curated wine club and the number of films it has introduced me to.)
According to EW, TCM nets around $200 million in cable fees and operates with an annual budget ranging between $20-40 million.
“The ratio is extremely large between how much we bring in versus how little we cost to operate,” says the insider. “The profit margins are insane.”
For comparison, TCM’s 2022 entire budget is equal to or less than Zaslav’s 2022 salary of $39 million (and let’s not forget the $246.6 million Zaslav made in 2021 thanks to a huge stock option).
It seems that Zaslav, an executive who is more interested in profits than preserving or promoting cinema literacy or history, did not understand the consequences of his actions once again. While he could bravely face the backlash to shelving projects from HBO, Zaslav seemed to be sweating once he released that filmmakers with power and influence in the industry were willing to fight WBD to save TCM. With WBD already losing Christopher Nolan as a studio filmmaker during the COVID-19 pandemic, WBD needed and wanted to keep filmmakers on their side. One way to do so was by protecting decades-long existing cinemas.
“He had a lot of people telling him not to do this, and he ignored them,” an insider tells EW. “But it’s a big deal for someone like him to change his mind. The Jack Warners and Sumner Redstones of the world don’t change their minds, especially publicly. He listened to people he should’ve listened to in the first place.”
Multiple sources tell EW that these cuts were made “with no plan in place for what to do next.”
“The filmmakers probably were saying something to Zaslav behind closed doors that was akin to, ‘Please do not mess up the programming of TCM,’” the insider notes to EW. “I don’t think Zaslav knew what to do. I don’t think he had a plan for what was going to happen with the programming of TCM.”
The Current State of TCM
While TCM is still around, the hosted segments following the introduction or conclusion of a film were cut. TCM cut these segments as a cost-saving measure to meet budget dictates. However, the decision to restore these segments was made in the last several weeks.
Tabesh’s return and the relationship with the Film Foundation will continue to license and secure movies that will appear on the network, as well as preserve film history at large. Tabesh’s return also ensures that programming at TCM won’t feel like kitchen sink programming (like the TCM hub was on HBO Max before Max eliminated hubs).
Cultural literacy seems to be on the decline. TCM is a filmmaker’s history book. Film literacy is cultural literacy. You might be surprised to find how relevant films from 50 years ago are today. On top of that, inspiration from original stories and groundbreaking filmmaking techniques of the past are important to study. TCM is like a film school that never ends.
“TCM has taken an approach to classic movies in a way that we try to make them relevant to a new audience,” says the insider. “We’re trying to present the films in a way that treats the audience as smart and intelligent. We take very sober and reverential responsibility for these films, no matter what they are. We know that by showing these films, somewhere on a television set, somebody is watching them. That’s what TCM is doing in the long run — we are helping to maintain the cultural memory of the greatest art form of the 20th century.”
Largely thanks to three filmmakers and the Warner Bros. Pictures executives, TCM is still here. While there will be some growing pains under Zaslav’s leadership, we can hope and fight for the preservation of cinema history, and the modern films that deserve to be remembered.
There are ways filmmakers like you can help TCM. First and foremost, tune into TCM whenever you can and watch the movies. You can also attend fan events near you, listen to their podcast, or attend their annual film festival in Los Angeles, CA.
As filmmakers, we must fight to protect films. No film deserves to be removed or forgotten from the culture.
Source: Entertainment Weekly